Church Is More Democratic Than Government
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Updated at 04 February 2009 0:49 Moscow Time
Church Is More Democratic Than Government
04 February 2009By Yevgeny Kiselyov
Kirill was enthroned on Sunday as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox
Church. Although most Russians consider themselves Orthodox, only
about 13 percent of them regularly attend church. Nonetheless, the
election of a new patriarch is truly an historical event, no less
significant than the election of a new president.
The patriarchate was restored in 1917 following the fall of the
Russian monarchy. Russia was proclaimed a secular country with a
division of church and state. Since that time, the Local Council, a
congress consisting of clergymen and laypersons from all over Russia,
has gathered only six times to elect the head of the church.
It is interesting that in 1917, Tikhon of Moscow, the first patriarch
elected in the 20th century, was chosen by the old custom of drawing
lots for one of the three candidates receiving the most votes from
the Local Council. Of the three, the favorite at the time was
Archbishop Anthony -- extremely active and popular in religious
circles and stridently opposed to the Bolsheviks. But when an elder,
blind monk drew the winning name from a special urn, it was the
outsider Tikhon who took the throne. Then, for many long decades
under the communist regime, the Kremlin essentially appointed the
patriarch, selecting individuals for their loyalty to the Soviet
authorities. Only under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was
the late Patriarch Alexy II chosen by a somewhat more democratic
There are conflicting opinions regarding Kirill's election. Some say
it was a profanation of the electoral process and that everything had
been decided in advance. Others claim that Kirill's win was the
result of a protracted struggle that began long before the former
patriarch had left this world.
The liberal opposition members of the church claim that the Kremlin
is still pulling the strings of the Moscow Patriarchate and that the
Kremlin still decides who will become the new patriarch. But "the
Kremlin" is a conglomeration of various groupings, not a homogenous
entity. Demonstrations by the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group, which
took place outside Christ the Savior Cathedral as the Local Council
was electing the patriarch, proves that Kirill relied on Kremlin
resources -- to be more precise, he relied on the Kremlin's spin doctors.
Some observers sincerely felt that Kirill was actually a liberal and
a modernist. Skeptics caustically said Kirill was merely skillful at
packaging conservative church ideology in a glamorous wrapper. Others
justly pointed out that the Orthodox community -- particularly in the
outlying provinces -- is so obscurantist that even the slightest
trace of liberalism would be considered anathema.
And that was precisely Kirill's biggest problem. He came across as
too modern, too erudite and too Western. It is no coincidence that
the Russian church has "orthodox" as its middle name. It stands upon
the pillars of traditions and rituals that have remained unchanged
for centuries. Adherents of traditional orthodoxy assert that, if
those rituals and traditions were eliminated, if the church services
now delivered in the old Slavic language were translated into modern
Russian, the church as an institution would surely die. This is why
Kirill constantly repeated in his election campaign, "I am opposed to
any church reforms."
Metropolitan Kliment was Kirill's main rival for the patriarchal
throne. Kliment is the manager of the Moscow Patriarchate's affairs,
a graying cardinal, church apparatchik and a favorite among church
fundamentalists -- in particular, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov,
abbot of the Sretensky Monastery. Rumor has it that Shevkunov is
Putin's closest religious adviser and confidant. Shevkunov is also
thought to have very close ties with top leaders of the siloviki,
including Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Federal Drug Control
Service chief Viktor Ivanov and Russian Railways head Vladimir
Yakunin, as well as conservatives such as State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.
One interesting fact: Of all the people in the hierarchy of the
Russian Orthodox Church, Putin chose only Kliment to be a member of
the Public Chamber. What's more, there was a lot of talk that first
lady Svetlana Medvedeva favored Kliment. So, although Medvedev and
Putin both distanced themselves from the struggle for the patriarch's
throne, Kirill's main rival clearly enjoyed support from top-ranking
Kliment received 169 of the 702 possible votes cast by the Local
Council. In addition, a close associate of that electoral body
suggested in all earnestness that the patriarch be chosen by lots, as
Tikhon was in 1917. That was a last-ditch effort to level the playing
field in the face of Kirill's clear lead.
Kirill was the favorite in the race. First, he dominated the
television airwaves. It was more Kirill's longstanding connection
with the world of television than assistance from the authorities
that helped. Kirill has hosted the weekly "Pastor's Word" program on
state-controlled Rossia television since 1994. But this was not his
only advantage. Kliment and his supporters stepped out of the public
eye to get involved in backroom intrigues, where they also lost. The
Church Synod elected Kirill as the interim leader after Alexy II
passed away. This reminded me of the Soviet era, when the person
chosen to oversee the burial of the deceased Communist Party general
secretary invariably became the next general secretary himself.
Second, Kirill's supporters convinced Metropolitan Vladimir, head of
the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the division of the Ukranian church
that is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate, to step out of the
race. In theory, Vladimir could have garnered one-third of the Local
Council's votes because the Ukrainian delegation was the most
numerous. Kirill apparently promised Vladimir something in return,
perhaps greater autonomy from Moscow.
Finally, Kirill managed to convince the other candidate, the aging
Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, to withdraw from the contest at the
last minute. Filaret's votes swung to Kirill.
In short, Kirill won like a politician and a skilled apparatchik. It
is a curious side note that during these elections, the Russian
Orthodox Church, with all its shortcomings, appeared more lively and
democratic than the secular government. The battle for the
patriarchal throne was incomparably more dramatic than the race for
the presidential post in the Kremlin, and therefore it attracted
greater public interest.
It is interesting that in his first speech from the patriarchal
throne, Kirill, contrary to all of his pre-election promises to
resist reform, strongly urged the church to get in step with modern
life. Now this is possible under Kirill's leadership.
Kirill won the contest decisively. But more important, Kirill has
returned the sense of what it means to be a public politician.
Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk
show on Ekho Moskvy radio.